Rebaptism: Turning a Pastoral Dilemma into a Teaching Opportunity

Bill Evans head shot

[Editor’s note: This article was first published in a short-lived journal in the mid-1990s.  The content dovetails nicely with Ken Stewart’s guest article from last week here on TheEcclesialCalvinist, and is reprinted here for the benefit of those who understandably missed it the first time.  Although it is a bit dated at this point, and there are a few things I might say differently today, I have resisted the urge to update it.]

“The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered to any person.” (WCF 28.7)

Bob was baptized as an infant. After a period of teenage rebellion, Bob comes to a vibrant faith in Christ and joins an ARP church. During his interview with the session Bob asks to be rebaptized as a sign of his faith in Jesus.

Peggy, a victim of childhood physical abuse, comes to faith as an adult and is baptized by a minister who is later forced to leave the ministry after a conviction for child abuse. Upon joining an ARP church she requests rebaptism, contending that her earlier baptism could not have “taken” because it was administered by someone she considers especially sinful.

Ray was raised a devout Roman Catholic but came to a Reformed understanding of Scripture during his college years. Ray then joins a Presbyterian church and eventually serves as an elder. After a job transfer Ray and his family join another Presbyterian church. When the session discovers that Ray was baptized as a Roman Catholic, it demands that he be rebaptized. But Ray is grateful for many aspects of his Roman Catholic upbringing, and he considers his baptism to be valid.

Such hypothetical (though not unrealistic) situations require careful pastoral and theological reflection. This article examines the rebaptism issue from historical, theological, and pastoral perspectives in order to identify principles useful to pastors and sessions as they deal with difficult situations such as these.

HISTORICAL SURVEY

The rebaptism question was posed early in the church’s history, and has continued to arise.[1] In the second and third centuries the church was confronted by heretical and schismatic groups that baptized their members. Some, such as the Gnostics, denied basic truths of the faith. Others, such as the Novatians, separated from the catholic (i.e., universal) church for reasons of purity. Early in the fourth century the church decided that a baptism consistent with the trinitarian faith of the church (i.e., water baptism performed by one adhering to the doctrine of the Trinity, and administered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) was valid even if performed by an otherwise heretical or schismatic group.[2]

The rebaptism question was again raised by the Donatists, a schismatic group in fourth-century North Africa. The Donatists alleged that a certain bishop was guilty of collaboration with persecuting Roman authorities. Therefore, they reasoned, all sacramental actions by the bishop (e.g., ordinations and baptisms) were invalid. In short, the Donatists argued that baptismal validity depends on the personal worthiness of the priest performing the sacrament. The Donatists were opposed by St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who asserted that the validity of the sacrament does not depend on the personal merit of the minister because he is but the imperfect representative of Christ. In actuality, it is not the minister or priest who baptizes, but Christ Himself.[3]

Controversy over rebaptism erupted again during the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli agreed with Augustine and the historic position of the church regarding trinitarian baptism, as did their successors in both the Lutheran and Reformed communions.[4] But more radical reformers associated with the “Anabaptist” movement insisted that converts from Rome be rebaptized. The Anabaptists rejected both Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant baptism because it was administered to infants. Noting the close New Testament relationship between baptism and faith, and also that Scripture did not explicitly command the baptism of infants, Anabaptists argued that baptism is a sign of faith and an act of obedience which presupposes the active faith of the recipient.[5] This argument, of course, is pressed endlessly in baptistic churches today. Such churches assert that a conversion experience and conscious acceptance of Christ are required for baptism.

Another controversy over rebaptism occurred in the American Old School Presbyterian Church during the 1840’s. Anti-Roman Catholic sentiment was fierce, and the General Assembly was asked to declare Roman Catholic baptism invalid. A majority of the Assembly delegates believed that Rome’s denial of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is in effect a repudiation of the gospel message, and the Assembly voted to reject Roman Catholic baptism. This decision was vigorously opposed by Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary, who noted the unprecedented nature of the decision. Hodge argued that, while manifestly imperfect, the Roman Church is a genuine church of Jesus Christ.[6] The substance of the 1845 decision was reiterated by the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1871 and again by a committee report of the 1983 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America which was not adopted. The classical view of Augustine, Calvin, and Hodge was affirmed by the 1981 Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod.

Other reasons for rebaptism stem from the manner in which the ceremony of baptism is performed. A modern problem facing Reformed churches involves cases where baptism was not administered in the name “of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In view here are situations where a concern for “non-sexist” language has led some in more liberal religious circles to revise the baptismal formula. In place of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” substitutions have been proposed; among the more popular are “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” and “Parent, Child, Spirit.”[7] The objection to such substitutes is that they either fail to denote personal distinctions within the Godhead (suggesting the Sabellian heresy) or they have other heretical implications (if God is “Mother” then the God-world relationship will be construed along the lines of a birthing process, implying pantheism or panentheism).

From this survey it is evident that the question of “rebaptism” is not a simple matter. A number of crucial questions arise out of the preceding survey: (1) What is baptism? Both Donatists and Anabaptists argued that they were not “rebaptizing” at all, since what was rejected was not really baptism in the first place. (2) What is the relationship of internal religious experience to the sacrament of baptism? Is baptism a sign of an individual’s faith? (3) What external form must the sacrament of baptism take? (4) What constitutes a “true church,” and what doctrines must a church affirm for its baptism to be valid?

BIBLICAL-THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION

What exactly is baptism, and what does it signify? The Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has rightly insisted on the close relation between the sacraments and the covenant—the sacraments are “signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27.1). This confessional language emerges directly from Scripture itself, where circumcision is described as a “sign of the covenant” and a “seal of the righteousness that he [Abraham] had by faith” (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11). The application of these terms to baptism follows from the clear spiritual parallels between circumcision and baptism. Both symbolize repentance (Jer. 4:4; Acts 2:38), regeneration (Deut. 30:6; Col. 2:12), and spiritual cleansing (Is. 52:1; Eph. 5:26). Furthermore, baptism is identified as a “circumcision” done by Christ Himself in Col. 2:11-12.

The covenant relationship must not, however, be viewed as a merely legal arrangement between God and human beings (similar to a modern contract). When the covenant is viewed in this way, legalism almost inevitably results, with disastrous consequences for the church. Rather, the covenant relationship is one of profound communion between God and human beings.[8]

The covenantal divine-human relationship comes to fullest expression in Jesus Christ—the God-Man and Mediator of the covenant (John 1:14; 1 Tim. 2:5). As a sinless human being, Christ kept the terms of the covenant for us (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). As a perfect sacrifice for sin, Jesus bore the penalty of the covenant curses (Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:14-15). This divine-human communion is realized in the life of the Christian through spiritual union with Christ, in whom we are justified, sanctified, adopted as God’s children, and glorified.

The New Testament sacraments reflect this christocentric character of covenant communion—they symbolize first and foremost the union of the believer with Christ. The Lord’s Supper signifies the “new covenant in his blood” (1 Cor. 11:25; cf. Mark 14:24), and it is Christ Himself who baptizes Christians into union with Him and His death and resurrection (Col. 2:11-12). As a sign and seal of the covenant promises, baptism finds its focus in Christ, the One in whom all God’s covenant promises receive their resounding “Yes” (2 Cor. 1:20).[9]

But what about the relationship between baptism and faith? While a close relationship between faith and baptism is evident in Scripture (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 8:12; 18:8), we should not conclude that baptism is merely a sign of faith. Notice that in Gen. 17:11 circumcision is commanded by God as “a sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham.[10] Furthermore, in Rom. 4:11 Abraham’s circumcision is described as a “seal of the righteousness which he had by faith.” Again, the emphasis is upon the content of God’s covenant promise (the righteousness that was to come through the greater Seed of Abraham—Jesus Christ), and not on Abraham’s response of faith. Baptism, therefore, is not a sign of faith. Rather, it signifies God’s covenant promises to the believer and applies or “seals” those covenant promises and benefits to the believer.[11]

Baptism also constitutes initiation into the church as the Body of Christ, the covenant community, and the sphere of divine salvation (Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27). The Nicene Creed rightly asserts that there is “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” There is but one Body of Christ, and Paul explicitly ties the singularity of baptism to this glorious unity of the church in Christ in Eph. 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”[12]

Thus we see that baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant promises to the believer, and that these covenant promises find their substance and realization in Jesus Christ, who is Himself the content of the covenant. Furthermore, Jesus Christ Himself baptizes the Christian into union with Himself and into the covenant community. In short, baptism is the once-for-all initiation of the Christian into union with Christ and into the church as the Body of Christ and covenant community.

The external form of the sacrament is specified in the New Testament. In Matt. 28:19 Jesus tells His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In obedience to this Great Commission, the church has historically insisted on baptism with water in the triune Name. Insistence upon the triune form also stems from the fact that deviations from this form usually signal deviations from orthodox trinitarian doctrine.[13]

The question remains, what about baptisms performed by groups with which we have doctrinal disagreements? As we have seen, trinitarian orthodoxy was the historic test of baptismal validity. Only since 1845 have some Presbyterian churches in this country rejected certain trinitarian baptisms outright, generally on grounds that the Roman Catholic rejection of justification by faith alone is a departure from fundamental and necessary Christian belief. We must remember, however, that the church’s understanding of biblical doctrine has often been imperfect. For example, despite St. Paul’s teachings on this point, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was largely obscured until the Protestant Reformation.[14] Do we conclude from this that the church ceased to exist between the death of Paul and the Reformation? Of course not! Such a suggestion contradicts Christ’s promise in Matt. 16:18, and it ignores the fact that the rich doctrinal heritage of the early and medieval church was transmitted to the Reformers and to us by the Roman Catholic Church.[15] When speaking of a “true church” we should recognize that there are degrees of adherence to the truth.[16] We Presbyterians maintain that the system of doctrine enshrined in the Westminster Standards faithfully summarizes the teaching of Scripture, but we also recognize that the church must always be reforming itself in obedience to God’s Word. There are sound theological and historical reasons, then, for continuing the classical Christian practice of requiring adherence to the Trinitarian orthodoxy as the only test of baptismal validity.

ECCLESIAL APPLICATION

The theology of baptism suggests that rebaptism in instances where a valid baptism has already occurred runs counter to the symbolic nature of the sacrament itself. The confessional prohibition on rebaptism is well-founded and ought to be observed. But here, of course, pastoral considerations must not be ignored. Pastors and elders do not wish to squelch the zeal of new church members and converts and the temptation to grant requests for rebaptism is sometimes strong. The irony here is that in acceding to such requests the pastor or session squanders a tremendous pastoral opportunity to teach about the true significance of baptism and the grace we have in Jesus Christ. Also, the rebaptism of some will inevitably cause others to doubt the validity of their infant baptism. Geoffrey Bromiley phrases it well:

  In view of the biblical significance of baptism, churches should not give, and their members should not expect or request, a repetition of baptism when some first or new experience of the work or gifts of the Holy Spirit is enjoyed. Instead, they should be taught more effectively the meaning of the baptism they have as a sign and seal of the saving work of God and thereby be led to see in any new experience the fulfillment of this work and of baptism as its sign. God is one, the covenant is one, and the work of God is one. So, too, baptism is one. There may be many experiences as we enter into God and his work, but there cannot be many baptisms, only a richer identification with that which baptism signifies.[17]

How can this baptismal teaching be applied in the church today? It should go without saying that requests for rebaptism must be met with tact and sympathy. Individuals request rebaptism because they want to do the right thing. Our pastoral goal should be to add maturity and understanding to that nascent faith and zeal.

Look again at the cases mentioned at the beginning of this article. Bob’s situation is doubtless the most common and probably the least complicated to address. As we have seen, baptism does not signify our experience of faith. While our spiritual lives tend to be episodic, with ups and downs, God is at work in His people throughout their lives, and His saving plan is certain from all eternity (Eph. 1:3-6). Baptism signifies and seals God’s promises to us in Jesus Christ, and thus baptism is relevant to the entirety of our Christian lives. As Bob begins to realize that God’s dealings with him did not begin with his conversion experience, he will be better able to appreciate and to build upon, or “improve” his infant baptism.[18]

The example of Peggy is more difficult. On one level it is crucial for her to recognize that baptism is ultimately an act of Christ Himself, not of the fallible minister who presides. But in such a case, where deep personal pain is involved, an understanding of the deeper significance of baptism can also be of great comfort. Baptism signifies incorporation and adoption into the family of God—in baptism we have a heavenly Father who will not abuse us or let us down, a Father who is utterly dependable. In an age of family disintegration, the biblical teaching regarding the church as the family of God needs to be emphasized anew.

Ray’s predicament differs from the previous two in that here the demand for rebaptism comes from church authorities. Certainly Ray should not acquiesce to an unreasonable demand—he clearly has the Westminster Confession on his side. But if the elders are themselves teachable, and Ray is sensitive to the concerns of the session, there is an opportunity for all to come to a deeper understanding of baptism. Situations like this remind us of the general office that all church members share—the responsibility to instruct and admonish one another (Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:24).

Finally, a word of encouragement is in order. Although past experience involving arguments over infant baptism may make us uneasy about confronting the rebaptism question, there is a better way. The unanimous testimony of the pastors interviewed for this article was that when the biblical and confessional case against rebaptism is presented well and with personal sensitivity, God’s people do respond positively. Let’s view each occasion for discussion as an opportunity to build up the people of God and to magnify the grace of God in Jesus Christ to which baptism points.


     [1]For a brief historical survey of the period until 1845, see Charles Hodge, “The General Assembly,” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 16 (1845):445-448. For the period 1845 to the present, see “Report of the Study Committee on Questions Relating to the Validity of Certain Baptisms,” in Minutes of the Eleventh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (1983), pp. 302-311.

     [2]See Hodge, “General Assembly,” p. 446.

     [3]On the Donatists, see W. H. C. Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952). See Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st ser., 4:369-651.

     [4]For Reformed affirmations of Roman Catholic baptism, see John Calvin, Institutes, IV.15.14-18; Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: John D. Lowe, 1857), III:346-349. The Reformed confessional statements regarding rebaptism (Westminster Confession 28.7; Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 20; Belgic Confession, art. 34) must therefore be interpreted as inclusive of Roman Catholic baptism. Until 1845 the Reformed tradition universally affirmed the validity of Roman Catholic baptism.

     [5]To their credit, the Anabaptists (e.g., the Hutterites and Mennonites) reacted strongly against the religious nominalism resulting from the medieval notion of “Christendom”—the equation of church and nation. As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, baptism became virtually a mark of citizenship, and rebaptism became a capital offense under the Code of Justinian (AD 529). That the Anabaptist renunciation of infant baptism was seen as a repudiation of the existing social and political order accounts in large measure for the horrible persecutions to which they were subjected by both Roman Catholics and other Protestants.

     [6]See Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” pp. 444-471; “Essays in the Presbyterian by Theophilus on the Question: Is Baptism in the Church of Rome Valid?” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 18/3 (July 1846):320-344. On the popular anti-catholicism of the period, see Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Rinehart, 1952).

     [7]See, e.g., Ruth C. Duck, Gender and the Name of God: The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1991). See also note 13 below.

     [8]A point emphasized by John Murray, The Covenant of Grace (London: Tyndale Press, 1954), p. 20.

     [9]On this see John Murray, Christian Baptism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), pp. 1-5.

     [10]While the faith of Abraham is certainly lauded in Scripture (Rom. 4:12, 16; Heb. 11:8-17), it is intriguing to note that the circumcision command in Genesis is bracketed by events that scarcely highlight the strength of Abraham’s faith (Gen. 16:1-4; 17:17-18). Overall, the biblical emphasis falls less on the initial act of faith and more on the ongoing life of faith and on the struggle to persevere (e.g., Phil. 3:7-14).

     [11]The baptism of helpless infants is a peculiarly appropriate illustration of God’s initiative in saving helpless sinners. Helpful treatments of infant baptism include Pierre Ch. Marcel, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, trans. by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1953); Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979); John Murray, Christian Baptism, pp. 45-82.

     [12]This raises the question of baptismal efficacy (what does baptism do?). Several brief comments may be made. First, the NT view of baptism appears to be “realistic” rather than merely symbolic—the sacrament is presented as actually communicating the spiritual reality it signifies (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:11-13; 1 Pet. 3:21). Second, the NT writers closely associate faith, repentance, and the work of the Holy Spirit with water baptism (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 2:11-12). Baptism, then, is used by the Holy Spirit as a real means of spiritual grace to the believer. Thus the Westminster Confession (28.6) affirms: “The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.”  On the close relationship of water and Holy Spirit baptism, see Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 255-267.

     [13]The status of scriptural terms for God such as “Father” and “Son” requires some discussion. Against those who view such terms as humanly constructed metaphors assigned to God (as if the notion of human fatherhood were simply projected onto God), orthodox theology recognizes the revelational and normative character of these names. As Athanasius of Alexandria argued against the heretic Arius, it is not that God is simply like a human father, but that human fatherhood exists as a created analogy to the archetypal divine fatherhood (Eph. 3:15 NIV/NRSV margins). See Athanasius, “Discourses Against the Arians,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser., 4:319-320. See also Thomas F. Torrance, “The Christian Apprehension of God the Father,” in Speaking the Christian God, ed. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), pp. 120-143.  Because retention of the trinitarian baptismal form does not guarantee adherence to trinitarian doctrine (e.g., Mormon baptism), Protestants have historically required actual adherence to trinitarian doctrine.

     [14]See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), II:2: “the doctrines of justification associated with the Reformed and Lutheran churches . . . represent a radically new interpretation of the Pauline concept of `imputed righteousness’ set within an Augustinian soteriological framework.”

     [15]Some argue that Roman Catholic baptism only became invalid after the anathemas against Protestant doctrine were promulgated by the Council of Trent (AD 1545-63). This rather formal argument fails to convince because the idea of human works as earning merit (and thus justification) before God was characteristic of Western Christian theology from the time of Tertullian on (c. AD 200).   Note that Protestant distortions of the doctrine of justification can be as destructive as Roman Catholic legalism. In their zeal to defend the doctrine of justification by faith, dispensational evangelicals such as Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie argue that once a person believes and is justified, that person need not manifest any fruits of obedience and can even cease entirely to believe in Christ and still be saved. See Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation: What It Means to Believe in Jesus Christ (Wheaton, Il.: Victor Books, 1989), p. 141. Such antinomianism is in stark tension with the biblical witness (John 15:5-8; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

     [16]So argues Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” pp. 462-68.

     [17]Bromiley, Children of Promise, pp. 109-110.

     [18]Note the emphasis on “the needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism” in Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 167.

This material was originally published as William B. Evans, “Rebaptism: Turning a Pastoral Dilemma into a Teaching Opportunity,” Faith and Practice 1 (1995):37-42.

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